Singapore’s Elections

About a week ago, Singapore had elections.

I will state up front that I do not fully understand the Singaporean Election process, nor how it evolved, or why it is the way it is.  If I get details wrong, PLEASE do correct me.  I appreciate it.

For my American readers, the best basic outline I can give is as follows

  • Singapore has an election every 5 years.  This election fills all offices.
  • Singapore is divided up into GRC’s, which for the purposes of making it analagous to the US process, consider each GRC a “state” for purposes of comparing Parliament and Congress.
  • You are only allowed to vote if two or more parties are running for office in your GRC/State  (what this has meant practically is that some Singaporeans have never voted)
  • You vote for a party, not a person.  You may like some or only a few of the members of the party, but it’s an all or nothing deal.
  • Whichever party wins the GRC/State wins ALL the offices in that GRC/State regardless of the distribution of votes
  • The winning party overall for the country picks the President from within their ranks.
  • Rinse and repeat in 5 years.

There is one main party, the PAP, which has been in power since Independence 45 years ago.  Historically they win by large margins.  However, in the past three elections, their support has begun to slip, and in the most recent election, the PAP got 60% of the vote, with 40% of voters splitting between various “opposition” parties.

Interestingly enough, because an opposition party only won by a majority in a single GRC/State, they only get 6 of the 87 Parliamentary seats.

40% of voters are represented by less than 10% of the ruling government body.

As someone who considers American Politics one of her favorite blood sports, I’m fascinated by the Singaporean approach. 

In many ways, it creates a government that runs far more efficiently and smoothly than that of my home country.  Buildings are torn down, infastructure is built, and things get done here…when in the US they would have been help in in committee, piled full of pork (money that goes to official’s home states for unrelated projects…a health care bill might include pork for Iowa in the form of money to study something about tornadoes, for example), and then often not passed because of partisan politics.  Boston’s Big Dig, which was supposed to streamline our highway experience ran years and billions over budget…and by the time it was done, couldn’t handle the increase in traffic, making the roads no less easy to navigate.

However, it is also true that many Singaporeans have felt disenfranchised by the ruling party.  There are concerns about the rising cost of housing, availability of jobs (and to whom they’re being given), concerns about human rights issues, and worry over providing for retirement.

Listening to the opposition parties, the rhetoric was often uncomfortable…bordering on xenophobic, with a lot of vitriol being sent in the direction of “foreign workers.”  Now, to be fair, they mostly mean the workers from India, Bangledesh and other countries who come in and do day labor on construction sites and so forth, packing into small apartments, and going home a short time later…and not so much the skilled foreign workers, like those in Ravi’s office (or Ravi himself).  Several of these parties have track records that would indicate that they’re not quite as xenophobic as their rhetoric would lead an uninformed listener to believe.

Support for the ruling party, in my observations, often boiled down to…I like Singapore the way it is…My life is good, so why would I want to change it?  For many, issues like the death penalty, LGBT rights and other “fringe” issues are just that…”fringe” and not worth considering as they do not affect the individual’s daily life.  Asian culture is extremely conservative on issues of sexuality, and it is going to take generations, not years, to see a real shift in attitude on that front.

With the exception of the one GRC where an opposition party won, there was only one other GRC where the opposition came close.  I’ve heard that some Singaporeans are calling for a clarification in election rules when a result is very close as it was in that GRC…a run-off or a re-count.  It reminds me of Bush V Gore in 2000, where many Americans still question the outcome of that election and its legitimacy.

Scandal was part of the Singapore elections this year. 

Tin Pei Ling, the youngest PAP candidate at 27, has a picture of herself flashing a peace sign and triumphantly holding a Kate Spade box on her facebook page.  This led to mocking jeers at rallies of “kate spade!!!”…and right now, I wonder how the KS stores in Singapore are doing among a specific demographic.  She also gave several unfortunate media quotes, such as that her biggest regret was not taking her parents to Universal Studios.  Many are also angry that she posted a comment about voting PAP on her facebook page on “Cooling Off Day” (when no one is supposed to pushing a political agenda).  Many felt that she was too young and inexperienced to enter Parliament, but as she was on the same GRC ticket as a highly regarded official, she was able to gain a seat because many voters in her GRC wanted to return the highly regarded official to power.

I also saw a lot of critiques of media coverage of the election.  Mediacorp apparently starting quoting random Twitter accounts as opposed to giving news at one point.  At a later point in the evening, I’m told that they chose not to cover the winning opposition party GRC’s victory celebration (or chose not to cover it until very late).  The Straits Times was also criticized for the dismissive tone it took regarding alternative news sources’ support and coverage of opposition parties.

I’ve seen a lot of critiques that the GRC system is broken…

I’m actually fairly ambivalent.  I’ve seen what voting for individuals can do.  The cults of personality around individuals like Sarah Palin make elections about who you LIKE better, and not the issues.  Some large percentage of Americans think that Congress and the Senate are broken or dysfunctional, but that THEIR officials are doing awesome jobs.  Which is somewhat inexplicable…everyone sucks…but not your guy/woman?

I think Singapore will be an interesting place to live for the next 5 years or so…

Between PAP’s decreased popularity in the past three elections and the opposition parties, I think that the next five to ten years may see the sorts of change politically that may change Singapore as a whole.  I’ve read that the opposition parties are already looking to 2016 and planning strategically.

In the end, though, much as in the US (and many other parts of the world) the economy and availability of jobs will have the most impact on the next election.


I have plenty of opinions about this election, but I’ve tried to stay impartial for this blog post.  As a foreigner, I am not allowed to have a voice in the government of Singapore.  Out of respect for that, I’m choosing to limit my comments to what I’ve said here.  If you want to hear more, ask me in person.

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29 Responses to Singapore’s Elections

  1. kierstenS says:

    Excellent summary – thanks! Hope you’re having a great trip in Boston.

    • Crystal says:

      We are, but we’re looking forward to coming home this weekend! Are you gearing up to pack yet? I can’t believe you’re leaving so soon!

  2. Jim says:

    I read about the Singaporean elections on Wikipedia, and it took me some time to figure out what a GRC was. It does seem analogous to how the Electoral College works with U.S. states. The Electoral College adds a layer of abstraction onto the voting process so states with a small population aren’t disenfranchised. GRCs add a layer of abstraction to ensure racial diversity in Parliament.

    The split between the popular/Parliamentary vote totals (e.g. 60% of the votes gets you 81 of 87 seats) seems like the Singaporean equivalent of the electoral/popular vote splits in US presidential elections. For example Obama got 365 electoral votes to McCain’s 173, but only 53% of the popular vote. Even in a total rout like Reagan’s 525-13 demolition of Mondale in 1984, Reagan only got 59% of the popular vote.

    • Crystal says:

      That’s a great comparison! Thanks–I had forgotten to look up/compare how the electoral college does (or doesn’t) often reflect popular vote.

  3. kirsten says:

    Just a correction:

    “The winning party overall for the country picks the President from within their ranks.”

    The winning party does not get to pick the President (although I understand what you’re getting at in trying to relate it to an American perspective). The winning party gets to form the government (i.e. the Cabinet) – this means that all the Ministers will come from that party. The party also gets to pick the Prime Minister.

    The President is elected in a separate elections, slated to be later this year (August)? However, the stupid thing is that all candidates have to go through a vetting process that is (surprise surprise) under the government (which is one party *ahem*) and they will decide who is “qualified” to run for President. In the past 2 terms they have simply decided that no one else was qualified except this one guy, so he became the “elected” President by default.

    • Crystal says:

      Ah, thank you for the clarification! It’s sometimes confusing for me with a President and a Prime Minister. Is the President largely a figurehead (a la Queen Elizabeth in Britain) or do they have real powers? How do their powers relate/conflict with that of the PM?

      • kirsten says:

        Yup, the President is largely a figurehead. He’s like our Queen, lol. He’s supposed to be guarding the reserves as the final check and balance before a government is allowed to draw on it.

        But a 2/3 majority vote in Parliament is sufficient to overrule him, which is what the PAP have always had, so it’s kind of stupid.

        We used to believe that the President can also grant clemency to death row inmates, but it’s been ruled that he cannot act in his own discretion, but must listen to what the Cabinet says. Which is also stupid.

      • Crystal says:

        Thanks for the clarification. I think I conflated the two jobs. This helps, although the presidents inability/unwillingness to grant clemency does not.

  4. kirsten says:

    Not every constituency is a GRC. There are SMCs too, which are single member so it’s really a 1-to-1 fight. The constituency in which they wanted a by-election (although there are no grounds for it legally, and the police has since cleared them away) is the smallest SMC in Singapore. It has been an opposition ward for the past 27 years, and the opposition politician there is a revered and much loved symbol of democracy and a voice for Singaporeans.

    Unfortunately he decided to leave his SMC and go lead a GRC team to contest in the hopes of upping the stakes and winning bigger. He left his wife, who has been helping him in the SMC for the past 27 years, as the candidate in that SMC. Unfortunately she lost to the PAP by (after counting overseas votes) a heart-stopping 78 votes. Which is why many of the residents in Potong Pasir, who have been proud of their “opposition” status, are so upset.

    Since the electoral boundaries get redrawn every elections, there is now the fear that since Potong Pasir SMC has “fallen”, the next elections in 2016 will see it disappear off the map, absorbed into a PAP GRC.

    • Crystal says:

      So to be a GRC you need 3 parties? And an SMC is when there are only two parties?

      How are the lines decided? Population? Or is that even a known thing?

      Thanks for all the help Kirsten. Trying to figure this all out from the outside is sometimes quite confusing!

      • kirsten says:

        For both GRCs and SMCs you can have as many parties contesting as they want, although of course in Singapore we hate 3-cornered fights because the odds are stacked against the opposition enough as it is, they don’t need to cannibalise each other’s votes!

        Basically in a SMC (Single Member Constituency), you are just voting for 1 candidate, so it’s really based on the individual candidates that you are voting for.

        A GRC (Group Representative Constituency) is actually kind of like 3, 4, or 5 SMCs grouped together, and then you vote for the team in a winner-takes-all situation. The original rationale was to allow for minority representation (so that minority candidates can get into Parliament even if a majority group will not vote them based on race), but I think Singapore’s moved beyond that now, so really most people now think that the GRC is another way for the PAP to hold on to power.

        They put an “anchor minister” in every GRC to lead the team, which stacks the odds in PAP’s favour because people will probably vote them to keep the minister in Parliament.

        This backfired this time for them in that the Foreign Minister (who is actually the best-loved Minister out of the lot) got voted out because of all the resentment against the PAP, and because the opposition team there was really good. It’s the first time in history the opposition has managed to wrest a GRC away from the PAP.

        They did manage to hold on to the other GRCs, though.

        We don’t know how the lines are decided… they say population, but it’s ludicrous ‘cos the lines are all over the place now. Like Holland Village is not in Holland-Bukit Timah GRC. And a school in Farrer Road (near Bukit Timah) can suddenly be the polling station for Moulmein-Kallang GRC. Great World City is in Jalan Besar GRC, Jalan Besar being almost where Little India is.

      • Crystal says:

        Thanks…I think I get it now, although I find it very confusing.

        There’s some of that sort of “redistricting” in the US too, especially in the South where they redistrict to lower the potential for minority voters (more likely to go Democrat) to put a Dem in the office instead of a Republican. Pretty slimy stuff.

  5. bookjunkie says:

    Another issue is Singapore is the climate of fear….real or imagined….I think real because of our current laws and defamation suits etc. Think Kirsten’s blog can fill you in.

    We really hope to move towards what we feel is more of a democracy with more freedoms. To a point where it doesn’t feel so oppressive. Sometimes I wonder what I can say and what I can’t.

    Well at least I do. But some SIngaporeans still vote based on things like upgrading….I think you call this pork barrel politics….threatening people with no upgrades and such if they don’t vote for the incumbent. Don’t like this at all because everyone pays the same taxes.

    There is so much I am only now learning since the more relaxed rules on the internet. Previously we only got information from the newspapers.

    • Crystal says:

      Kirsten’s blog is absolutely something I would point those who want to know more from a local viewpoint. And, unlike me, she’s allowed to give an opinion.

      The culture of fear is very real…I saw a lot of people talking about fear of reprisal if they voted opposition, and I think that’s a really important issue that you raise.

  6. Hey Crystal,
    This is an interesting read on how things happen.
    just two points.
    Unfortunately, I think this is directed at all kinds of immigrant, just different reasons at different occupational levels.
    At the very high end of work, the imported CEOs and such, there is a sense that Singaporeans could fill those jobs but re not given the chance.
    At the very low end of the labor market, the construction workers and such, sadly, a lot of that is fueled by straight-up racism
    And in between, Singapore has many people working service industry jobs for instance who have similar sentiments directed at them and a large part of that is racism mixed in with the sinking feeling that the country doesn’t sound or look like home anymore.
    About the gay issue
    Sex between men is against the law, but sex between women is not.
    Also, while Singapore is conservative in a lot of ways, this election also had a PAP minister attempt a smear of an opposition candidate based on alleged queerness. This was largely rejected by almost all including the PAP, there was an almost immediate distancing.
    So yeah, Singapore is conservative, but I suspect that public opinion of queerness is much more complicated.

    • kirsten says:

      UGH THE SMEAR CAMPAIGN. Or, as known online, the PAPsmear. The Minister who started it is really just… not a good minister. I really really REALLY wanted him to lose. The candidate that he smeared (who IS openly gay), is SO MUCH BETTER. Just… a better person.

    • Crystal says:

      You make some excellent points, as always Becca (always happy to see you here!)

      The reason I wondered or assumed the anger was more at the blue collar/day labor workers was that there is an interesting discrepancy between Singapore’s “official” census numbers, which put foreign workers at 20-something percent, and the UN’s recent report which says it’s actually 40%. I can’t help but wonder if those apartments where Bangledeshi workers (and others) are cramming in 20 to an apartment is a reason for the discrepancy.

      I guess it’s also that I’ve seen more overt hostility sent towards day laborers and the maids. Although, with the maids, it’s far more about race/classism than anger over “taking” jobs, because I doubt many Singaporeans would want to do a maid’s job in the conditions they’ve set up for the maids.

      On the gay issue
      –I thought the official position of the government was that lesbians don’t exist?

      I was hoping that you would speak up on this…I have to draw a shaky line on how open I can be in my critiques of the government, and that smear campaign sorely tested me. If you know any locals who have written about it, especially from an LGBT perspective, I’d love to link to it.

  7. kirsten says:

    Nope, unfortunately Vivian Balakrishnan (the smearer) is in and Vincent Wijeysingha (who got smeared) is out. And there ARE people in that GRC who are going around saying things like, “Cannot lah, we cannot let the gays in Parliament.” *facepalm*

  8. bookjunkie says:

    Sorry to spam your comment section Crystal (guess elections are still a very hot topic) but I just had to get it out. Vincent Wijeysingha is gracious enough to allow free speech on his facebook page and in return I see all these awful hate comments. Got so irrate, I am starting to report them as abusive. Doesn’t seem to be working though….hope many others do the same.

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